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UNITE HERE on Strike Against "WalMartization" of US Hotel Jobs

Posted to the IUF website 01-Oct-2004

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On September 30, some 1,400 members of Local 2 of UNITE HERE (the union formed in August through the merger of the North American HRCT union HERE and the garment and general workers' union UNITE) launched a strike against four major hotels in San Francisco to protest the hotel employers' failure to negotiate a new city-wide collective agreement. The four hotels are the Argent Hotel, the 1,900 room Hilton San Francisco, Crowne Plaza Union Square and the Mark Hopkins Inter-Continental.The union anticipates a lockout of thousands more union members by other hotels in city-wide employers' group.

The San Francisco vote follows the decisions by over 2,000 union members in Washington, D.C. and 3,000 in Los Angeles to strike if necessary should negotiations fail to deliver satisfactory new collective agreements with the cities' leading hotel employers. UNITE HERE locals in those cities and the union nationally have pledged full support for the San Francisco workers.

Despite lengthy negotiations - the Los Angeles agreement expired in April - employers have been unwilling to drop their demands for increased workloads and reduced employer contributions to health insurance and pensions.

The employers are also resisting the unions' demand for a two-year contract which would expire in 2006, giving them a common expiration date with hotels in 10 major US cities and thus increasing national bargaining power with the chains that now dominate the sector. UNITE HERE has been building strong support for the union demands among nationally- and community-based civil and immigrants' rights groups.

US hotels weathered the post-September 11 tourism downturn by laying off thousands of workers, but have been reluctant to rehire in response to rising occupancy. Reduced payrolls have allowed the large hotels to remain profitable by increasing workload pressure on existing staff. Employers are now seeking to boost profits further by offloading the cost of medical insurance in a country with no national health care system. In San Francisco, the hotels are demanding a more than twenty-fold increase in employee contributions to health insurance. In Los Angeles, the hotels unilaterally cut the employer contributions, forcing hundreds of workers to drop out of the program and join the millions of Americans with no health insurance.

The conflict is about basic rights and against what UNITE HERE calls "the WalMartization" of hotel workers. By insisting on a common expiration date for collective agreements in major tourism centers, the union is trying to achieve sufficient bargaining strength with the transnational chains to compensate for the absence of national collective bargaining in the US.

UNITE HERE is therefore focusing on four key hotel chains in these cities which are major employers and are leading the opposition to the union's bargaining demands. The four chains are: InterContinental, Starwood, Marriott, and Hyatt.